Reading The Nutmeg’s Curse by Amitav Ghosh

The Nutmeg’s Curse, written by the master storyteller Amitav Ghosh, can be aptly described as an epic spice journey – an exploration of climate change told through the lens of a small fragrant nut. Continuing the narrative of a planet in crisis from his previous work, The Great Derangement, he takes us on an enthralling journey through time, space, and the intricate world of the spice trade from a small cluster of islands to the rest of the world.

The Nutmeg’s Curse follows the lives of diverse communities and races whose destinies become entwined with the history of the spice trade, particularly nutmeg. Ghosh’s skill in interweaving their narratives creates a rich tapestry of experiences that spans continents, cultures, and generations. From the remote islands of Southeast Asia to the bustling streets of Amsterdam, readers are transported across time and space, bearing witness to the greed, exploitation, and violence that underpin the global trade of spices. This story resonates with similar tales of colonisation and exploitation that unfolded in later years in places like India for its textiles and spices.

Amitav Ghosh’s prowess as a researcher shines through in this book – his attention to historical detail is remarkable, with real life descriptions of exotic locales to the intricate workings of the spice trade.

Ghosh’s greatest strength lies in his ability to create nuanced characters and it is visible in his rendering of various characters as well as communities. This enables readers to empathise with their struggles, aspirations, and moral dilemmas faced by the characters, whether they are ambitious merchants, enslaved workers, or indigenous islanders.

The interweaving of multiple themes throughout the narrative sparks contemplation and discussion. Each chapter leads to the exploration of the next theme in this saga of climate change. Ghosh delves into issues such as imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, environmental exploitation, and cultural assimilation—all of which resonate with contemporary relevance. Through this exploration, Ghosh raises thought-provoking questions about power, identity, and the enduring impacts of historical events.

The Nutmeg’s Curse is an epic tale that spans generations and continents, smoothly transitioning between different time periods, seamlessly connecting the past and the present. While the sheer scale of the narrative might feel overwhelming at times, the author’s skillful storytelling ensures that readers remain engaged and invested.

Given the extensive scope of the narrative, some readers may find the pace to be slow at certain points due to the abundance of historical information and descriptive passages. Additionally, the multiple perspectives, time periods, and interwoven narratives may challenge some readers in keeping track of all the plot threads and characters.

“The planet will never come alive for us, unless our songs and stories give life to all the beings, seen and unseen, that inhabit a living Earth.” The challenges faced by humanity today—climate change, natural calamities, pandemics—seem akin to the curse of the nutmeg. Reflecting on the havoc wrought by mankind on Mother Earth, terraforming natural spaces to suit specific ways of living, one cannot help but see a dark and terrifying tale in history’s rear-view mirror.

Human life, environment, people, materials, and resources have all been exploited and conquered, silencing the voices of others. The association between people, places, and things, the relationship with the sacred, and the stories of the land have all been sacrificed at the altar of progress. With the pandemic that gripped the world, the debate around the climate crisis has become even more critical. Ghosh’s books ensure that this discussion reaches the ears—and indeed, the eyes—of the common man. 

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